Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced the creation of a new Religious Liberty Task Force at the Justice Department (DOJ). The announcement came during his remarks at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit.
Mr. Sessions said the new task force was created in response to “a dangerous movement” that “is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”
“There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated,” Attorney General Sessions said. “This election, and much that has flowed from it, gives us a rare opportunity to arrest these trends. Such a reversal will not just be done with electoral victories, but by intellectual victories.”
The Religious Liberty Task Force will be co-chaired by the Associate Attorney General Jesse Pannuccio and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth A. Williams. The two were also in attendance at the event Monday morning to discuss various examples of religious discrimination.
The attorney general stated that “Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack,” and that it is his belief the issue was a major factor in the 2016 election. He said the Trump Administration is “determined to protect and even advance this magnificent heritage.”
Under President Donald Trump, the Justice Department has settled 24 civil cases with 90 plaintiffs Mr. Sessions characterized as a result of the previous administration’s “wrong application” of the ObamaCare contraception mandate. One of the more notable examples of these cases are the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Catholic charitable order was originally founded in 1839 to care for the impoverished elderly on the streets of French towns and cities. The Obama Administration put the Catholic nuns in a “moral dilemma”: either refuse to comply and face millions in crippling fines, or violate their “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
Last month, a district court in Colorado issued a permanent injunction in the case, which Mr. Sessions called “a major victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious freedom.”
“The government has no business telling the Little Sisters that they must provide an insurance policy that violates their sincere religious beliefs,” the attorney general said. “And since day one, this administration has been delivering on that promise.”
Panelists at the event also discussed the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against St. Vincent’s Catholic Charities. DOJ said they were deliberately targeted because they were the only entity in the area who still only placed adoptions with heterosexual couples.
Gay rights activists literally passed other agencies on the way, a DOJ panelist said, adding their grievance against St. Vincent’s “is not about access.”
But increasingly, examples of religious discrimination are outright criminal.
“Since January 2017, we have obtained 11 indictments and seven convictions in cases involving arson or other attacks or threats against houses of worship,” Mr. Sessions said. “Our Civil Rights Division has also obtained 12 indictments in other attacks or threats against people because of their religion.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in recent years issued several opinions that served as major victories for religious freedom. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court ruled closely held for-profit corporations are exempt from regulations, to which its owners religiously object.
The Court cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In 2017, a 7 to 2 landmark ruling came down in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church. A Missouri-based conservative Christian legal group sued after the church was denied state taxpayer funds for a playground improvement project because of a Missouri constitutional provision barring state funding for religious entities.
Jack Phillips, the owner of the Denver-area Masterpiece Cakeshop, was also a frequently cited plaintiff at the event. In 2012, Mr. Phillips refused on religious grounds to make a custom wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled Mr. Phillips’ refusal violated state discrimination laws and that he had “no free speech right” to turn down Craig and Mullins’ request.
In June, the Court tossed out a ruling against Mr. Phillips. Three weeks later, the Court granted the appeal of florist Barronelle Stutzman — the owner of Arlene’s Flowers and Gifts in Richland, Washington — who was fined after refusing to sell flowers for a gay couple’s wedding.
“We are going to keep going to court,” Mr. Sessions vowed. “And I believe that we’re going to keep winning.”